NJ volunteers helped plan COVID vaccines for the elderly

When Beth Rader struggled to find a COVID vaccine appointment for her parents in January, shortly after the vaccine became available, she turned to a new Facebook page for help in what had quickly become a rush for the world’s most coveted product.

Rader heard about a clinic at Kean University in Union, near his parents’ home, and got their appointments. Then she noticed that other people were posting to the site desperately seeking help making appointments for loved ones – most of whom were elderly with underlying health issues.

And so Rader, who had the expertise (digital fundraising experience) and the time (she was in between jobs), started spending 12 to 20 hours a day in her Washington DC area apartment responding. to requests from strangers and to book appointments on dozens of supplier websites.

“It was first relatives and friends, then it became distant relatives and friends of friends and pretty soon it turned into people that I had no connection with,” said Rader, 30 years old. “It was a really tough time for people.”

As of mid-December, she had made 700 dates in 10 states – the vast majority of them in New Jersey.

There have been countless acts of generosity and kindness performed each day in 2021 by New Jerseyers for New Jerseyans.

But this has perhaps been seen nowhere more than in the efforts of an army of volunteer vaccinators who have helped thousands of the elderly, the disabled, the chronically ill, caregivers for the homebound and many others still navigating a convoluted vaccination system.

These were ordinary people – teachers, students, housewives, the unemployed, faithful – who spent months every day making appointments in times of crisis, when hospital admissions were rising rapidly and New Jersey was on the rise. average 60 to 80 deaths per day, about three to four times the rate today.

Their efforts were born out of necessity.

Sandy Thompson is helping people find vaccines, boosters and tests via a Facebook page that she helps moderate while holding her son Dean, 2, in her lap on Tuesday, December 28, 2021.

During the first few months of the campaign, New Jersey received only 100,000 to 200,000 doses per week from the federal stockpile to immunize the millions of qualifying state residents. The campaign’s first month went well when it was limited to healthcare workers, nursing home residents and first responders.

It ended on January 13 when Governor Phil Murphy unexpectedly made over 2 million New Jerseyans immediately eligible and unwittingly created an unfair playing field.

Murphy has allowed anyone 65 and over, people with chronic illnesses, and current and former smokers to book an appointment. Pent-up demand overwhelmed a system that was not ready, despite months of preparation. In one day, several providers refused people and close their dating portals.

The vast majority of appointments could only be booked through a website, which forced the elderly, who accounted for 80% of COVID deaths in the state, to compete with younger, more tech-savvy people. A call center was only set up a week later and had so many problems that it was forced to temporarily close. In order to avoid bureaucratic delays, no proof was required for those who alleged underlying health issues or a smoking habit, but this also made the system ripe to cheat.

“It was a really tough time, especially if you were older,” said Howard Berger, 76, of Teaneck. “People were always dropping like flies and you were always worried that you would have COVID before you could get the vaccine.”

At the same time, a Facebook group debuted with the utilitarian name “New Jersey Covid Vaccine Info” – a brainchild of sisters Brittany Prell Cohen and Brandi Prell, who had made an appointment for their grandmother after receiving one page advice for Florida residents.

Sandy Thompson is helping people find vaccines, boosters and tests via a Facebook page that she helps moderate while holding her son Dean, 2, in her lap on Tuesday, December 28, 2021. Daughter Annabell, 4 , look in the background.

Those looking for help flocked to the page. So did the volunteers, including Sandy Thompson of Parsippany, who started making appointments and posting information on the page, while raising two toddlers and studying for an MBA.

“There were a lot of nights I would give up food on the stove because I got a notification that appointments were available,” Thompson said with a laugh. “And then I would be on the computer with a 20 month old on my lap.”

At first, they spent hours online 24 hours a day refreshing the pages of vaccine suppliers. Then they learned the patterns when drugstore chains and hospitals posted new appointments – usually late at night or early in the morning, when online traffic was lower. They used tools like Twitter notifications to know when a new appointment list is available and AutoFill to load a person’s personal information into a site’s online form as quickly as possible.

The number of page members continued to grow, often by the tens of thousands per week.

Some volunteers have even developed specialties. There were those like Thompson who were good at getting essential information, from new vendors to dating advice, and getting it out to subscribers. There were people including Rader who became volume deliverers thanks to their organizational skills and their ability to manage large spreadsheets with the personal information of those seeking help.

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And then there were people like Jeanne Marie Mirabella, who focused on the more difficult cases. Mirabella used her years navigating the social service system as a mental health counselor to help people with special needs and the confined to the house, or, as she put it, “to reach the hard to reach.”

Like many volunteers, her willingness to help others was fueled in part by a personal frustration with the system – her homebound sister couldn’t get someone into her home for months to come. give it a chance. The state did not have a system for returning home until four five months after the start of the campaign.

“It was intolerable for me not to be able to find one for her,” said Mirabella. “Many people confined to the house were at the greatest risk of death. For me it became a priority to help them.”

The first sign of success came in early March, when the death toll in nursing homes – where residents had been an early target for the vaccine – fell, data showed. The same started for the general population at the end of April.

Recipients come in all shapes and sizes, but many are like Berger, who has had difficulty walking since having surgery two years ago. He was able to get his first two injections at a clinic near his home, with the help of local officials. But when the recall came out, that option no longer existed.

Volunteer Dee Kalman, from Westwood, NJ, contacting an elderly person after making an appointment for the vaccine for her.

After reaching out to NorthJersey.com and The Record for help, Berger was put in touch with Dee Kalman, a Bergen County college professor who made more than 200 appointments for local residents. Not only did Kalman make an appointment, but she picked up Berger and drove him to a CVS in Hackensack.

“She doesn’t even know me and yet she came to my house and took me to my date,” Berger said. ” Who do this ? “

The Facebook page still has 131,000 members today. After the summer lull, activity returned, with booster shots requested and parents looking to make appointments for their children.

Beth Rader has stacks of thank you cards. Some people have sent him gift cards or donated to a charity close to his heart. She even went to a Mets game over the summer with one of the people she helped.

“People have stereotypes about what it is like to be from New Jersey,” she said. “Yes, we love our bagels and we can be brash. But I think that was something that was so authentically New Jersey. I’m in a group for people in Virginia and DC, and there isn’t the same level of community that we have with the New Jersey group.

“The world is a bit sucky these days, and you need the right things,” Rader said. “And that was one of them. It makes me really proud to be from New Jersey.”

Scott Fallon has covered the COVID-19 pandemic since its onset in March 2020. To get unlimited access to the latest news regarding the pandemic’s impact on New Jersey, please register or activate your digital account today.

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @newsfallon

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